Andrew Marr: could I start by going back to that extraordinary moment a fortnight ago when you know that you had got Bin Laden. This was not simply presumably another difficult decision. As an American, never mind as president, there was something personal about it.
President Barack Obama: Well, there is. If you have met with families who lost loved ones on 9/11 – if you think about what an extraordinary trauma it was for the country as a whole, the sacrifices that had been made by troops – not only from the United States but also from Great Britain and other members – in Afghanistan and you think that all traces back to this maniacal action by al-Qaeda. For us, to be able to say unequivocally that the mastermind behind that event had been removed was a powerful moment. And you could see it in the reactions here in the United States. And certainly, that’s something that I felt very personally.
I also felt just great gratitude for the extraordinary performance of the team. Because any time you send any kind of men and women in uniform into battle your biggest concern is whether they’re going to come back. And for them to have been able to perform this without casualties was extraordinary.
It was also an extraordinary gamble, as you yourself have said, because your troops could have ended up shooting at Pakistani troops had things gone wrong. And however difficult relations are with Pakistan at the moment, they could have been an awful lot worse by that.
It could have gone worse. Part of the reason that I was able to take that calculated risk was an awareness number one of how well they prepared. How well we had under, we had staked out what the compound was like. It was set back from a large portion of the neighbourhood there. We felt that we could get in and out relatively quickly. But there is no doubt that that was as long a 40 minutes as I care to experience during my presidency.
Absolutely. And although the phrase was kill or capture, realistically in a dark place with bullets flying around, he was always going to be killed, wasn’t he?
Well the, as you said, the instruction was kill or capture. Understanding that when you send our guys into a compound like that in the pitch of night, on a moonless night, without knowing whether somebody has a bomb strapped to them, what kinds of weapons they have access to, that their number one instruction was to come out safely as well as perform the mission. And I think they did so in an extraordinary fashion. The fact that the vast majority of people on the compound were able to avoid any serious injury was a testament to their professionalism.
What would he have had to do to be captured?
Well, I, you know, I don’t want to go into the details of the operation. I will say that, you know, we went in understanding this was an extraordinarily difficult mission with a whole host of unknowns. The guys who went in performed their mission with precision. Their instructions were to keep to a minimum collateral damage. That’s part of the reason why we in fact chose this group. But beyond that, all I’ll say is that when I got a full report of how they performed I marvelled at the extraordinary work that they had done.
Because it would presumably have been very difficult for America to take this man and put him on trial with all the hullabaloo of attorneys and PR characters, and the interrogation and so forth. It would’ve been a difficult thing to do.
That wasn’t our number-one consideration.
Can I turn to Pakistan itself? Do you now have any clear understanding of the level at which Pakistani officials or others knew about Bin Laden being there?
We don’t. What we know is that for him to have been there for five or six years probably required some sort of support external to the compound. Whether that was non-governmental, governmental, a broad network, or a handful of individuals, those are all things that we are investigating, but we’re also asking the Pakistanis to investigate.
You know, obviously, the Pakistanis I think are are troubled by this event. Either the fact that Bin Laden was there without anybody knowing about it. Or that some might have known. And I think it’s incumbent on them to investigate this thoroughly and take it very seriously, and we’re in close consultation with them at this point in terms of how we move forward.
Not only in investigating what happened in Abbottabad, but also to get our relationship on a firm enough footing so that the terrorist threat that’s directed as much at Pakistan as it is at us starts to erode. And that’s going to require co-operation and a building of trust. They have generally been significant and serious partners against the terrorist threat to the West.
We’ve killed more terrorists on Pakistani soil than anywhere else, and that could not have been done without their co-operation. But there’s more work to do. And my expectation is, is that over the coming months, this can be a wake-up call where we start seeing a more effective co-operative relationship.
And if you find another very high value target at the top of al-Qaeda, Mullah Omar or whoever it might be in Pakistani territory or other sovereign territory, would you do the same again?
Well I’ve always been clear to the Pakistanis. And I’m not the first administration to say this. That our job is to secure the United States. We are very respectful of the sovereignty of Pakistan. But we cannot allow someone who is actively planning to kill our people or our our allies’ people we can’t allow those kind of active plans to come to fruition without us taking some action.
And our hope is and our expectation is that we can achieve that in a way that is fully respectful of Pakistan’s sovereignty. But I had made no secret. I had said this when I was running for the presidency, that if I had a clear shot at Bin Laden.
You’d take it.
That we’d take it.
Our Prime Minister, David Cameron, said recently that the problem was that Pakistan was looking both ways on terrorism. He got into a little bit of trouble for it, but he was right, wasn’t he?
Well I think what Prime Minister Cameron understands, as I understand, is that Pakistan has been very obsessed with India. They see that as their existential threat. I think that’s a mistake. I think that peace between India and Pakistan would serve Pakistan very well. It would free up resources and capacity for them to engage in trade and commerce, and make enormous strides that you’re seeing India make. But that’s their orientation. It’s been that orientation for a long time. And so they look at issues like Afghanistan. Or the border region in the Fata (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) through the lens of what does this mean for our contest with India.
The lens is the wrong way of looking?
Well, part of what we’re trying to do is to talk to them about how they can reorient their strategy so that they understand that the biggest threat to Pakistan and its stability is homegrown. And that if we don’t go after these networks that are willing to blow up police stations, blow up crowds of people assassinate Pakistani elected officials with impunity – if they don’t get a handle on that then they’re gonna see a significant destabilization of the country.
When it comes to Afghanistan the military I think both here and certainly in Britain are saying keep going: we’re winning, keep pushing. A lot of other people are saying no, no, no, we’re never going to be able to nation-build in this place. It’s never going to be sort of Switzerland with minarets. You’ve got to start to pull out. Which side of that are you more on?
I think Prime Minister Cameron and I very much agree on this issue. I think that what we’ve done is to, first of all, halt the momentum that the Taliban had started to build up because of the drift of the campaign in Afghanistan that took place. Partly because we in the United States were distracted by the war in Iraq.
So we plussed up our troop levels, revamped our strategy. The Taliban now is back on its heels. Although they still have the capacity to to kill a lot of people. And the fighting remains fierce. So what we’ve also tried to do is to say that we have to emphasize the civilian aspects of improving the Karzai government’s ability to deliver services.
That’s all going to be important as well. Now what I agree with and what I think Prime Minister Cameron would be the first to say is that we’re not going to militarily solve this problem. And you’re right. We can’t expect Afghanistan, one of the poorest countries in the world, suddenly to have the same institutions that an advanced and well-developed democracy has.
What we can do I think is use the efforts that we’ve made militarily to broker a political settlement that ensures the Afghanistan constitution is abided by, that elections remain free and fair, that human rights including women’s rights are respected. We’re not going to get a perfect outcome, but I think that we during this transition period that we’ve already agreed to, we can get to the point where a political reconciliation is possible on terms that are consistent with our values and consistent with the reason that we went in there in the first place.
And that means talking to the Taliban at some level?
Ultimately, it means talking to the Taliban, although we’ve been very clear about the requirements for any kind of serious reconciliation. The Taliban would have to cut all ties to al-Qaeda. Renounce violence. And they would have to respect the Afghan constitution. Now those are some fairly bare bones requirements.
Are you starting to talk to them on that basis? I mean, not you personally, but the administration?
You know, what we’ve done is I think work with a wide range of parties in the region. President Karzai himself is trying to lead a reconciliation process that we fully support. And he’s set up a peace jirga that that can help to structure dialog and conversations there.
At lower levels, reintegration processes inevitably involve various Taliban commanders coming in and saying that we’re ready to put down arms and make a decision to engage in the political process. At the higher levels, obviously it’s more complex.
But I think the broader point is that there needs to be a political settlement, and we are supportive of a political settlement. We don’t anticipate Afghan Afghanistan to suddenly become Switzerland. But we do expect any political settlement to abide by certain standards so that Afghanistan, number one, from our strategic perspective, doesn’t again become a safe haven for terrorism. But number two, that the progress that’s been made in institution building and the respect for human rights in Afghanistan is preserved.
In your speech on the Middle East you took the, to many people, surprising step of talking about the 1967 borders. Is that where America now stands?
It is. But the truth is that we were stating what I think most observers of the long history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict recognise as the obvious – which is that if you’re going to have any kind of peace, you’re going to have two states side by side.
You can’t have a little archipelago of Palestinian territory?
No. You’re going to have two states. And the basis for negotiations will involve looking at the 1967 border, recognising that conditions on the ground have changed, and there are going to need to be swaps to accommodate the interests of both sides. That’s on the one hand.
On the other hand, and this was an equally important part of the speech, Israel’s going to have to feel confident about its security on the West Bank. And that the security element is going to be important to the Israelis. They will not be able to move forward unless they feel that they themselves can defend their territory, particularly given what they’ve seen happen in Gaza, and the rockets that have been fired by Hezbollah.
So our argument is let’s get started on a conversation about territory and about security. That doesn’t resolve all the issues. You still end up having the problem of Jerusalem, and you still end up having the problem of refugees. But if we make progress on what two states would look like, and the, a, reality sets in among the parties this is how it’s going to end up, then it becomes easier for both sides to make difficult concessions to resolve those two other issues.
Hamas and Fatah have come together. And in the autumn, they’re going to go to the United Nations and ask for formal recognition of statehood. Is there a problem from your point of view with that? Would you back it or would you veto it? How would you regard that?
I do think it’s a problem for two reasons. Number one, Hamas still hasn’t recognised Israel’s right to exist and renounce violence, and recognise that negotiations are the right path for solving this problem. And it’s very difficult for Israel in a realistic way to say we’re going to sit across the table from somebody who denies our right to exist. And so that’s an issue that the Palestinians are going to have to resolve.
Would you veto that approach?
They’ve got to make a decision, first of all, in what is the official position of a unified Palestinian authority about how they’re dealing with Israel. Because if they can’t get past that barrier, it’s going to be very hard for a negotiation to take place. I also believe that the notion that you can solve this problem in the United Nations is simply unrealistic.
And you know, we’ve said directly to the Palestinians. So I’m not saying anything to you that we haven’t said privately. That whatever happens in the United Nations, you are going to have to talk to the Israelis if you are going to have a state in which your people have self-determination. You are not going to be able to do an end run around the Israelis. And so I think that, you know, whatever efforts they mount in the United Nations will be symbolic.
We’ve seen a lot of these sort of symbolic efforts before. They’re not something that the United States is going to be particularly sympathetic towards, simply because we think it avoids the real problems with that have to be resolved between the two parties.
And of course, all of this part of the world is in flames at the moment. And it’s what, 50 years, since the freedom rides. You mentioned Rosa Parks yourself. And these are in many ways, the civil rights marches of today. What would you say to the young Syrians who after Friday prayers are going to go out and they’re going to confront batons, and they’re going to be killed, some of them by bullets? The most powerful man in the world, what’s your message to those people?
Well my message is that the power and the moral force of nonviolence has proven itself in the United States. The Berlin Wall came down not because, you know, the Soviet Union or East Germany were overthrown militarily. It was because people decided they were fed up and they wanted a life in which they had opportunity and self-determination.
We’re now seeing that in the Middle East. We’ve seen it in Egypt, we’ve seen it Tunisia. It’s obviously extraordinary to see the courage of people who are willing to face down bullets and batons.
And the part of why I wanted to give this speech is to send a very clear signal that the United States stands on the side of those who through nonviolent means, are trying to bring about a better life for themselves and their families. Now I also mentioned in the speech that once the initial protests are completed, once a transition process takes place then you get into the realm of politics.
And it’s going to be messy, and it’s going to be difficult. And that’s why creating institutions that respect the rights of minorities, and making sure that elections are run in a in a serious and and fair way. And recognising that compromises are going to be required between various sects and tribes.
That all those elements of political struggle that we’re so familiar with here in the West that’s going to be a part of this unfolding process in the Middle East. But as long as people adhere to the principle that violence typically is not going to bring about the sort of changes that they seek then the United States is going to be strongly supportive of their efforts to handle voice in their lives and their affairs.
The Bin Laden moment has given you a new purchase for a time. And I just wonder how you’re going to use that domestically in America. Because you have so many problems ahead of you. You had a tough time in the Congressional elections. And you have the second presidential election looming.
You know, my main concern day to day is how do we make sure the American economy is growing, how do we make sure the world economy is growing, how do we make sure that the people in this country who don’t have jobs are able to find jobs that pay a living wage, and allow them to support their families.
How do we get an energy policy that works so that we’re not subject to the whims of the spot market. Most of my day-to-day work is consumed by how can we deliver on the promise of the American dream to ordinary people. And so we are very proud of what we did with Bin Laden. We’re proud of what we’ve done on the security side. But what really matters to the mom or dad in Toledo, Ohio, or Pensacola, Florida is..
The economy. And so that has to be our number-one focus.
And what would the President Obama say looking back at the Barack Obama who won on all those wonderful images of hope and change and yes we can? What would you say to him now? You’re a good guy? Life is a little harder when you get into office? What would you say?
You know, I would say that there aren’t, there’s no get between the guy who ran and the guy sitting in front of you now. What I did was project a vision of where we need to go. And I was very clear on election night this is going to be a steep climb. It’s going to take more than one year, it’s going to take more than one term probably for us to reorient the country in a direction that allows us to fulfill that promise. But
And is there an Obama 2.0 Presidency in your head already?
Well look, what we’ve accomplished already has been extraordinary. The something that Brits take for granted, a health care system that ensures you don’t go bankrupt when you get sick. We put that in place. And we’re now in the process of implementing it. We yanked an economy out of a potential Great Depression. And played a large role working with Great Britain in making sure that the world financial system didn’t collapse.
We have made sure that students are able to get loans so that they can go to college. We’ve invested in clean energy. So there are a whole range of things that we’ve accomplished that make me very proud, but there’s unfinished business that still has to take place. We have an immigration system that’s still broken. Our energy policy is still inadequate to the task. And so I’ve got more than enough on my checklist to keep me busy for another several, another several years.
You’re coming to Britain and you’re going to be the guest of the Queen at Buckingham Palace. And some people noticed last time, perhaps to their surprise, that you and Michelle seem to have a bit of chemistry with the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh.
They are extraordinarily gracious people. They could not have been kinder to us. I met Her Majesty, the Queen and the entire Royal Family the last time I was, the first time I was in England. In April of 2008. And then, Michelle and the girls actually visited London again and went to Buckingham Palace. She could not have been more charming and gracious to the girls.
They actually had a chance to ride in the carriage on the grounds. I think what the Queen symbolises not just to Great Britain, but to the entire Commonwealth, and obviously the entire world is the best of England. And we’re very proud of her.
David Cameron has the opportunity every week to sit down with the Queen. And I think the first president she remembers was Truman and then Eisenhower and so on. Have a completely private conversation. No notes, no microphones. Do you have anyone you can have that kind of conversation with? Would you like there to be somebody with that sense of history that you could just totally privately shoot the breeze with?
Well I don’t know if anybody shoots the breeze with Her Majesty, the Queen. But…
But you know, one of the great aspects of this job is it gives you an opportunity to meet with people from all walks of life. You’ve had a chance to talk to the Queen of England on one day, and the next day you have the chance to talk to somebody in a diner off a highway here in the United States. And what you find is that there’s a lot of wisdom to be found if you’re willing to listen. And I think most politicians spend most of their time talking instead of listening. That’s a habit that I try to break.
Well talking has been very enjoyable, Mr President. Thank you so much.
Thank you so much. I enjoyed it.